If one were to play a game of word association, the word ‘Japan’ would not likely be followed by ‘whiskey’. To conjure up images of whiskey, one would tend to think of Scotland, Ireland, or maybe even the Southern United States. However, it would appear one of Japan’s best-kept secrets is that it is the home to two internationally renowned whiskey distilleries, Suntory and Nikka, both of which built their whiskey business from the expertise of Masataka Taketsuru, the undisputed father of Japanese whiskey.
Early Exposure to Brewing
Masataka Taketsuru was born in the coastal town of Takehara in 1894. His family owned a sake brewing operation. He learned from an early age that brewing sake was an art form that needed to be practiced with great skill and care. To help his family in the brewing business, he enrolled in the organic chemistry program at the University of Glasgow. It would be here where Masataka Taketsuru would discover the two great loves of his life.
Taketsuru arrived at the University of Glasgow in 1918 and was introduced to the art of whiskey making. Fascinated by the process of distilling the local drink, he soon began apprenticing under master whiskey distillers at Longmorn distillery in Strathspey. By doing so, he became the first Japanese person to study the Scottish method for producing whiskey. Two years later he would return to Japan with master status as a whiskey distiller and his new bride, a Scottish woman named Rita.
Masataka and Rita enjoyed a near fairytale romance that is now legend in two separate corners of the world. In 2012, Rita’s great-nephew Harry Hogan spoke to The Daily Record about the beginnings of his grandmother’s sister’s romance.
“While staying with my great-grandma Robina, love blossomed between Rita and Masataka. One legend has it that they fell in love during a duet of Auld Lang Syne and another has them pulling the ring and sixpence from a Christmas pudding and realizing their future lay together,” Hogan said.
Scottish Traditions Take Root in Japan
Upon returning to Japan, Masataka Taketsuru began plying his trade with the Kotobukiya distillery which would later take the name Suntory. He signed a ten-year contract and was in charge of building the Yamazaki distillery and oversaw the ensuing whiskey production. Here he would have a hand in the creation of Suntory Whisky Shirofuda (White Label), released in 1929 as the first single malt whiskey produced in Japan.
Not surprisingly, Taketsuru dreamed of running his own whiskey distillery. Part of the reason was that he was convinced that in order to replicate the Scottish whiskey, it had to be produced in a similar climate as Scotland. According to a Masataka Taketsuru biography on the University of Glasgow website, this was the driving force behind the decision of where to build his new distillery.
“Thus in 1934 Masataka established Nikka Whisky, and built its first distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido, which– though inconveniently located– he had always considered to be the ideal site in Japan for whisky-making, similar in many ways to the Scottish town where he had studied.”
The early days of the new company saw choppy waters, according to whiskywall.com.
“Yoichi was difficult to access and it was not easy or cheap to transport products to the main island of Japan. The company took fairly significant losses for the first several years.”
In October 1940, the first Nikka whiskey was launched and the company’s fortunes took a turn for the better. One of the helping factors was the outbreak of WWII. Both Nikka and Suntory supplied the Japanese military with Whiskey.
Masataka Taketsuru’s Whiskey Legacy
After Masataka Taketsuru’s death in 1979, his adopted son Takeshi Taketsuru took the helm of Nikka Whiskey. Under his guidance, the company continued to flourish. Even to this day, Nikka is regarded as a top whiskey brand worldwide. In 2016, Koichi Nishikawa was named Icons of Whisky 2016 Distillery Manager of the Year for his work as the Yoichi Distillery Manager.
For their part, Suntory has also maintained their reputation through the years. In 2014 the company was awarded the ISC “Distiller of the Year” award for the third consecutive year, and fourth time in total.